In the wider world, beyond consumer products and services, one of the most remarkable events of the past 12 months was the successful election campaign and inauguration of Barack Obama as president of the US.
It was remarkable not only historically and politically, but also in terms of marketing, for Obama's campaign communications and branding have been hailed in design circles and beyond as consistently slick and well-executed.
Street artist Shepard Fairey's screen-printed 'Hope' poster swiftly became its defining image (and an iconic piece of graphic design in itself), but the Obama brand was much more than just a poster. The campaign also embodied a shift in sentiment, important not only to politics, but also in how brands talk to consumers - toward trust, honesty and authenticity.
With malfeasance seemingly rife among politicians and bankers playing fast and loose with other people's money, public trust has become the scarcest of commodities when it comes to big business.
The design industry is subject to the effect of this in several ways. Design is often the only direct touchpoint between brands and consumers, making an understanding of the mood and sentiment of the day crucial for consultancies advising their clients. At the same time, when companies cut marketing budgets and put projects on hold, agency margins are squeezed.
There is no denying it has been a tough year so far, but the picture for design agencies appears to be mixed: some agency heads are describing conditions as 'the worst they have been for a long time', while others are enjoying record business wins as clients shop around for the right partner.
According to Doug James, director at brand consultancy Honey, design agencies need more business acumen to remain profitable and successful. 'It's about setting a business up, knowing all the metrics and which ones to watch - the key performance indicators. You need to know where it is you make money,' he says.
Sara Fielding, senior consultant at consulting firm Results International, agrees that this is a primary concern. 'There has to be greater clarity and understanding of finances, especially net profitability, not just for the business as a whole, but by client and by service offering,' she says. 'Only with these systems in place can they really see where the money is being made and be able to argue factually and convincingly for fairer fees.'
In a recession, the pressure on business metrics is unparalleled, but there are Â opportunities as well as challenges in the market, according to Iain Johnston, chief executive of marketing services group Loewy. 'There are a few things happening on the client side and on the agency side that are coming together,' he says. 'There's more focus on value for money and effectiveness - on exactly what you are trying to achieve. Things you can't show a return on are the first to go, but there does seem to be a flow of work coming through.'
Not surprisingly, clients demanding greater effectiveness and value are becom-ing the norm. Skincare brand Nude has an ongoing partnership with design agency Pearlfisher and the two are collaborating to become more efficient.
'A more challenging economic climate can often encourage innovation; it forces us to look at what we're doing and how effective and efficient it really is,' says Annmarie Harris, marketing manager at Nude. 'Design spend, like everything, needs to be well-managed and monitored for efficacy. For brands in fast-moving industries like the beauty industry, to stop spending would run the risk of quickly becoming outdated or worse, irrelevant. However, well-utilised, innovative design can achieve fantastic awareness and be very cost-effective. My advice would be to keep spending, but do it cleverly,' she adds.
According to Jackie Roberts, senior brand manager for tampon brand Lil-lets, measuring the effectiveness of design investment is crucial. 'All activity should pay for itself by driving sales,' she says. 'While it is difficult to establish the effectiveness of a pack redesign in isolation, it plays an important role in optimising the results of the broader communications activity.'
Loewy-owned product design group Seymourpowell has worked with Lil-lets on the development of a new applicator product. 'We have invested heavily in the current market conditions to establish this as a better alternative to the market leader in the category. Ultimately, success is measured through sales, but we have measures in place to track individual elements of our integrated communications plan,' says Roberts.
That efficacy and value for money are being demanded at all stages is due in large part to the rise of measurable digital channels. The continued decline in spend on (and the impact of) traditional advertising appears to be benefiting design generally and in particular digital and packaging, where the ROI is greater.
While digital is becoming more important in brand communications, this does not mean businesses should turn solely to digital specialists to work on brand development, warns Nicolas Mamier, European vice-president of branding group Elmwood.
'Digital is an increasingly important route for communication and therefore features high on the list of requirements from any agency, but I do not believe that means companies should default to using digital specialists to manage their brand,' he says. 'Clients are looking for original brand thinking that makes use of the opportunities offered by digital channels, tools and platforms, not just digital thinking.'
The shift away from traditional advertising also has implications for a client's strategic needs, says Jon Davies, managing director of packaging design group Holmes & Marchant.
'Above the line doesn't hit as many consumers as it used to, which means the high costs do not see enough ROI,' he adds. 'But ad agencies have long been the strategic partner for brands, investing heavily in planning support for their clients, paid for by the high fees. Recession reduces fees available and pushes clients to ensure they get ROI. So this old ad agency model is no longer sustainable and clients are looking elsewhere for strategic partners with more relevant products; namely, design and digital. The more grown-up agencies have invested in planning to support this shift.'
By introducing planning to design agencies, their thinking is not confined to creating standout packaging, for example, but ensures that there is a full marketing and communications strategy underpinning and supporting the design work, claims Davies.
The whole story
Bob Blandford, design creative director at integrated marketing agency Haygarth, believes we will see more of this. 'There will be even more focus this year on brand planning, strategy and positioning. [It is] key not only to design work, but in informing and directing the wider communications strategy.' In an echo of Obama's holistic design and marketing campaign, the strategy may well include a 'story' that can be promoted through channels such as PR activity, social media and advertising.
One of the most prevalent of these 'stories' to hit the FMCG packaging world recently is nostalgia. The apparent reassurance to consumers of bygone days and enduring brands has driven a boom in 'heritage' design.
'There has been a growing number of successful marketing initiatives that hark back to, or celebrate, the past,' says Barry Seal, managing director of branding group Anthem Worldwide. '[Examples include] the relaunch of Wispa, Milky Bar Kid advertising and Marks & Spencer and Selfridges' anniversary celebrations. This is a powerful and effective way to reconnect to the past and bring back the feeling of the "good old days".'
Another recent branding theme has been that of the 'local'. Amid a backlash against globalisation and as consumers focus more on their immediate communities, brands are talking up their local ties or knowledge. However, this is not the same as having a strategy, warns Jim Prior, chief executive of branding group The Partners.
'I don't think brands should go down the knee-jerk local response, where they say "Look how we're in touch with the people of Bangalore", or wherever,' he says. 'This is just a reaction and it rings hollow. It's the time to be assertive and confident about your brand globally, but be aware that the world isn't a homogenous place.'
The same can be said of nostalgia branding. Brands with heritage by the Â truckload, such as Hovis, can capitalise on it. Jones Knowles Ritchie's pack designs for the bread brand neatly marry its long history with contemporary colourways and clean typography. Nonetheless, it has to be based on something real and authentic, not simply a tactical reaction. 'That heritage seems an opportune add-on to a brand could be seen as an indictment of the short-termism of the brand manager rather than a celebration of their ability to catch the wave,' says Smith & Milton director Howard Milton.
Again, it comes back to the attributes of openness and trust. 'Consumers are seeking honesty and co-operation and design's role is to communicate this effectively,' says James. This is changing the way in which brand language is formulated, according to Terry Tyrrell, worldwide chairman of The Brand Union. 'Amid this landscape of broken promises and brands, people are sceptical and suspicious. Today's consumer seeks transparency and authenticity, respects candid answers and expects quality,' he adds.
This leads to another trend in branding programmes: the real need for change to be internal, as well as external. 'More clients understand that the way to drive their brand forward is as much about internal alignment as external activities. It's about understanding and buy-in at all levels of the company,' says Prior. The Partners has been working with global financial consultancy Deloitte on the firm's brand positioning of 'leadership and staying ahead'. According to Deloitte UK head of brand Pia DeVitre, the project focuses on the 'tangible actions' of the company and its staff. She believes that working on branding is more important than ever in the current market. 'This recession has made us focus on the things that really matter,' adds DeVitre. 'Brand really matters and we still have budgets to support key components of the brand strategy.'
Such strategic consultancy includes much more than tangible design work. It is those agencies that under-stand their client's business issues - and are savvy about providing consultancy outside core design work - that are faring well. 'Clients need something more than just shelf stand-out and pretty design. This could mean consultancy on distribution methods, cost-savings, materials, innovation and so on - whatever helps their business,' says Davies.
Materials are a key factor in another major trend affecting brands and design - the ongoing drive toward more sustainable processes. Sustainability is now a key factor in most structural design briefs, whether for ethical or PR reasons, or simply to save money by reducing costs. Design can help brands find more sustainable and efficient ways to deliver their products and services. 'It's about being smarter,' says Harris. 'With Pearlfisher's guidance and expertise, Nude is in the process of reworking some packaging to better suit our sustainable goals, without destroying our margins.'
According to Johnston, large-scale FMCG brand-owners are 'taking a major lead on sustainability', the fruits of which are likely to be seen in the next 12 to 18 months. 'The focus is on minimisation in general, from packaging and recycling to supply chains and distribution,' he says. 'These projects aren't going on hold because of the recession and they will make a big splash when they are announced.' However, he declines to name the comp-anies he is referring to.
There is still some way to go before most companies embed sustainable processes into the way they think and operate. Anthem Worldwide's parent company, Schawk, recently surveyed major US FMCG and retail companies and found that 83% are being affected by packaging sustainability, but only 28% had a comprehensive plan in this area. The survey also revealed that more than 60% of clients look to design and pre-media vendors for up-to-date information on sustainability. 'Clearly, more needs to be done in terms of shaping both thinking and best practice, so the design industry has a key role to play in educating the marketplace,' says Seal.
Sustainability is, perhaps, an overarching issue for most brands now, but all clients have different requirements and problems. Some may be solved by traditional market-ing techniques, others by restructuring a business' processes or even its culture. Design can tackle all of these because
first and foremost the discipline is about problem-solving, and whatever happens to the various marketing channels, businesses will always have problems to solve.
'One of the great attractions and anomalies of the design sector is that it's all sorts of different things,' says Prior. 'But designers tend to be problem-solvers. The great consultancies think neutrally about what the solution might be. If there's one unifying theme across design, I think that maybe this is it.'
This article was first published on marketingmagazine.co.uk